From UC Berkeley to 49ers sidelines, Harry Edwards dreams with his eyes wide open

February 20, 2024

Three people standing on a football field as one gestures, smiling and talkingIn 1968, when Harry Edwards was working toward his sociology Ph.D. at Cornell University, he also witnessed the crescendo of one of the most politically violent eras since the Civil War. Racists and government authorities were gunning down prominent Black activists. Churches were being firebombed.

Society, Edwards sensed, was splintering.

Edwards had been an impressive collegiate athlete. But rather than pursuing a career playing professional sports, he committed to studying the social forces that shaped them. Sports, he observed, were a reflection of broader social issues involving race, gender, politics and power. But if athletics reflected society's worst, he reasoned, it could also be a tool to make life better.

He knew he wanted to do more than study. 

He wanted to take action.

Edwards leveraged sport's biggest stage — the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City — to protest rampant racial discrimination and advocate for human rights around the world. The Olympic Project for Human Rights he organized resulted in the iconic image of Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos — with bronze and gold medals draped around their necks — raising their fists while standing on the podium.

It was a pivotal moment in sports activism, emphasizing the power of athletes in the fight for justice and equality on a global stage.

Edwards' activism and his work on what became the sociology of sport didn't fade after the games. It blossomed. He began teaching at UC Berkeley, where hundreds of students jammed into lecture halls to hear him speak about how sport can hold a mirror to society — and how athletics can be used to shape the world.

Back then, activism by Edwards and others focused on broad, systemic injustices befitting the Olympic stage. More recently, he said, athlete-led activism has shifted toward localized actions that focus on and address specific aspects of racial injustice. 

"Today, again, we're entering into one of the most divided and one of the most politically tumultuous eras in the history of this country," Edwards said. "The challenge is that the violence in society, more generally, is so great. … You could very easily lose focus in terms of those historic, race-related issues.

"And so we find many athletes who are saying, 'Hey, we've gotta narrow our scope.'"

Berkeley News